Tag Archives: Leslie Cannold

Colm Tóibín’s Mary’s Testament

Colm Tóibín, The Testament of Mary (Picador 2012)

1tm Last Christmas I read The Book of Rachael, Leslie Cannold’s debut novel about an imagined sister of Jesus. This year veteran novelist Colm Tóibín speaks in the voice of Jesus’ mother.

The Book of Rachael wasn’t completely satisfying as a novel, but it painted a convincing picture of what it may have been like to be poor or outcast or female in Jesus’ times, and entered convincingly into a world view where tales of miracles could be true without being true as we understand the word.

The Testament of Mary has different fish to fry – my trouble is I can’t tell what those fish are. There are passages that are pretty well straight retellings of incidents from the Gospel of John: the raising of Lazarus and the ecce homo. Other familiar scenes – the crucifixion, the miracle at Cana – are recast in ways that in effect claim that the Gospel is lying. For most of the book I felt I was reading notes towards a novel, something that would be fleshed out once a bit more research could be done, and a few crucial decisions made: is Mary’s son a charlatan followed by desperate misfits, and if so how does that fit with his bringing a corpse back to life? why are the Romans and ‘the Elders’ intent on killing him and all his followers, and in that context why does the head Roman try to save him? why have Mary flee the scene of the crucifixion before the actual death – might there be a less crude way of saying that the Gospel of John isn’t historically accurate?

I suspect that the heart of the piece is in something Mary says to the unnamed man who explains to her that Jesus died to save the world: ‘when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.’ I read this as an emphatic repudiation of a 1950s Irish Catholic world view, and I go, like, ‘Whatever!’

It’s not a novel. It’s not an informed engagement with the gospels – it seems to assume, for example, that John’s gospel claimed to be a historical rather than a theological document. It’s not effective as polemic, because the thing it opposes is presented as arbitrary and fanatical. I don’t know what it is. Maybe Colm Toíbín felt that it was important to show his colours in the current struggle between fundamentalism and science, etc. OK, it does that – but I’m surprised the commissioning editor didn’t return the manuscript with a note: ‘Needs more work.’

LoSoRhyMo #5: Leslie Cannold’s Book of Rachael

Leslie Cannold, The Book of Rachael (Text 2011)

At the Sydney Writers’ Festival earlier this year I embarrassed myself and Leslie Cannold, author of this book about an imagined sister to Jesus, by singing her a snatch of Dory Previn:

Did he have a sister, a little baby sister,
Did Jesus have a sister?
Was she there at his death?

I was expecting to find in the novel the kind of revisionist pleasure provided by ‘Did Jesus Have a Baby Sister‘ (the link takes you to the song on YouTube). But it turns out to be quite a different beast: it doesn’t so much ring changes on the biblical story as set out to imagine what life would have been for a spirited young woman in the time of Jesus, using the biblical story as a kind of baseline. There is some revisionism, of course: the virgin birth is explained – almost incidentally – by the familiar Roman soldier story; as a young man, Joshua/Jesus comes home late at night smelling of alcohol and women; and there’s an excellent account of the raising of Lazarus. But the aim isn’t to debunk or mock.

It’s years since I read any theology, apart from Tissa Balasuriya’s Mary and Human Liberation. Leslie Cannold’s approach to the biblical narrative goes quite a bit beyond Balasuriya’s ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, and she certainly doesn’t take up his vision of Mary (here called Miriame) as a revolutionary figure. I doubt if many scholars would take seriously the book’s version of how Joshua came to go on his preaching mission (he was looking for a woman who was pregnant to him, who had been consequently sold into prostitution by her father). It’s clear from this and other examples that this is not an attempt at historical excavation. Such pernicketiness aside, I don’t think I’ve ever read an account of the Jesus story that brings home more clearly what it meant to be poor or outcast or female in those times. That was the main pleasure of the book for me, rather than an engagement with the characters, who never quite came completely to life, despite even the scattering of cheerful sex scenes. Still, the pleasure was considerable.

But it’s November, and a sonnet is compulsory, even though it may create even more embarrassment all round than an off-key rendition of Dory Previn:

Sonnet 5: Where were the women?
These days I think of the Last Supper
and wonder where the women were
when Jesus foretold in that upper
room his foes would soon bestir
themselves and take his life. Who cooked
and shared that meal, were overlooked
by gospels and two thousand years
of art and preaching? More than spears
such silence pierces the hearts
of half the world. Oh they were there,
not just their sinful, perfumed hair
or veils, or wombs and other parts.
They've always held up half the sky.
Their absence is a stupid lie.

SWF: Saturday

11.30: The Book of Rachael

‘What’s a nice secular Jewish girl like you doing writing a book about Jesus?’

That’s how Irina Dunn kicked off this session in the Bangarra Mezzanine room, swimming in morning light and vibrating to an occasional passing jet ski. Leslie Cannold, the nice secular Jewish girl in question, was there to discuss The Book of Rachael, one of a number of books at the festival to address religious issues from the viewpoint of respectful non-believer.

I’d been keen to attend this session. I love Dory Previn’s song, ‘Did Jesus Have a Baby Sister?’ and a novel about just such a sister has a huge appeal. It turns out that Leslie Cannold has written a number of non-fiction books, to do with abortion and other feminist issues. She was watching a series about the life of Jesus on television, and had a moment when the narrator said that, though Jesus almost certainly had sisters, nothing is known about them. She decided to write an essay bringing those sisters back to history. She headed off, full of resolve, to an institution called something like the Melbourne Theological Library, only to discover that when someone is forgotten it means they are forgotten, that we know nothing about them and never will. She decided to write a novel. Fortunately no one warned her how difficult that would be.

As she was completely ignorant of religion, her research involved reading the entire Bible, both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible, but not too much interpretation of it, though the limited amount she read included daunting texts such as Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her. She drew a parallel with the process in which hints and silences in the official histories must be interpreted to unearth the the histories of subject peoples – ‘women have essentially been a subject people’. The project of telling the story of Jesus’ sister ran into many difficulties, among them being the way Jesus’ story kept drifting into the foreground, as it did a couple of times during the discussion.

Irina Dunn did a lovely job of letting Ms Cannold shine, and supplied a couple of sweet theatrical moments when she tried to discuss elements of the plot, and had to be almost physically restrained. ‘But I never mind if people tell me a book’s plot,’ she said, genuinely astonished that people should object to spoilers. ‘It’s the writing that matters.’

One lovely thing I wrote down:

I love and respect all these characters. I assume they are believers and respect that about them, but I needed to tell their stories in a way that made sense to me, and I don’t believe in miracles.

The book was sold out when I tried to buy itbut I did embarrass myself by approaching Leslie Canold at teh signing table and singing a few bars of Dory Previn to her.

1 pm: The Director’s Notebooks
Former National Gallery of Australia director Betty Churcher chatted with Terence Maloon about her new book about the drawings she did of beloved paintings when she thought ahe was going blind. This was a marvellous session, not least for the unabashed affection these two people showed for each other. To kick things off, Maloon read a passage from early in the book, where Betty describes herself aged eleven being enchanted by a painting (in a serendipitous echo of the spirited intelligence of Leslie Cannold’s Rachael). It was a lovely passage, and when he finished reading, Maloon simply sat and beamed at the writer of it. After a long moment, she said, ‘That was the start of it,’ and the conversation was under way.

4:00: The Big Reading
This is a regular event where a big theatre full of people is read to by an all-star international crew of novelists, with SBS’s Annette Shun Wah as ring mistress.

Kei Miller read from his first novel, The Same Earth. Introducing him, Annette made a teasing reference to the Caribbean accent as impenetrable. In fact he was brilliantly articulated, as much a pleasure for the music of his voice as for the slightly fabulist text.

David Mitchell and Michael Cunningham read from works in progress, the latter explaining that reading published works feels to him like showing a cucumber that won a prize at a county fair several years ago. It didn’t seem to occur to him that this might seem to be disparaging his companions on stage. Still, both WIPs were intriguing.

Téa Obreht, originally from the former Yugoslavia and now living in the US, read from The Tiger’s Wife, a piece that blended vampire elements with tales of the recent Yugoslav wars.

Kader Abdolah, sporting an impressive Mark Twain moustache, was an established novelist in Iran, but now lives in The Netherlands and writes in Dutch. He was the stand out of the session, reading us a short story that was a lightly fictionalised account of his refugee journey – this was both affecting and funny. Then he read the first paragraph from his new book, The House of the Mosque, and held the book up, saying that he had been missing Iran for many years, but had finally been able to go there again, ‘in this book’.

We had an excellent and surprisingly cheap Lebanese meal watching the sunset over Walsh Bay, then walked up George Street to the Town Hall for:

8:00: We (Still) Need to Talk About America
This was the fizzer of the festival for us. Four interesting people on the panel, with an idea that sounded promising: the US sometimes seems scarily incomprehensible from the outside, and this was a chance to hear what it’s like inside. Michael Connelly is a crime novelist who engages with live issues. Téa Obreht is a young novelist who arrived in the US as an immigrant when she was (I think) 12 years old. Daniel Altman is an economist with an interesting résumé. Gail Dines is a sociologist who takes on the influence of porn. It went nowhere. From the front stalls it looked as if Anne Summers mishandled the moderator role, moving doggedly through her list of things that are weird in the US – the cheering of the killing of Bin Laden, the failure to introduce gun laws, disenchantment with Barack Obama, and so on – asking questions that couldn’t help but make the panelists defensive, and jumping in too often to display her knowledge of things USian, in effect clamping on the brakes whenever any momentum seemed to be developing among the panelists. Dines and Altman, sociologist and economist, gamely worked up some edgy sparring, and they both had interesting things to say, but for me the dominant mood was encapsulated in this exchange:

Summers (to Connelly): I saw you smile. You had a thought there.
Connelly: No, I was just waiting for this to pass.

My guess is that the whole thing would have gone better if a moderator had opened with a brief statement to the effect that many things about the US are incomprehensible to outsiders, maybe giving a couple of examples, then having each of the panelists take 5 minutes to respond what it looked like from their vantage point. And trust them to take it somewhere interesting.

Still, we had plenty to talk about in the long wait for a bus.